Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Border Security Congestion

Sierra Blanca Border Patrol Checkpoint/Tom Barry
The El Paso Times called again (June 13) for Congress to pass the Putting Our Resources Towards Security (PORTS) bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic congressman who was the Border Patrol chief in the El Paso district in the early 1990s.
According to the editorial, Reyes’s bill will “beef up funding for our international ports of entry -- and infuse more money into our economy,” noting that slow border-crossing lines have been “the sad song since border security was tightened up following 9/11.”
This is a pork barrel bill cloaked in the politically popular parlance of border security.  Along with the less deceptively named bill, Emergency Ports of Entry Personnel and Infrastructure Funding Act, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the PORTS bill is requesting a $6 billion authorization to improve the land ports-of-entry through increased hiring of customs and other inspection officials as well major infrastructure improvements.
The El Paso Times makes what seems at first glance a reasonable argument, namely that long border waits decrease binational commerce and thereby slow economic development. Yet Reyes, Cornyn, the El Paso Times, and such border boosters as the Border Trade Alliance fail to acknowledge that the fundamental reason for the exceedingly long border crossing times is not inadequate staffing and infrastructure, as they claim.
Rather, the problem is uncritical acceptance of the border security paradigm imposed on border affairs after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The resulting border security buildup has become a powerful disincentive for border crossings.  Whether business, tourist, or family member, no one wants to wait hours to cross into the United States.  New border security measures instituted on the U.S. side have also slowed southbound traffic.
The PORTS bill uses the rhetoric of security to win favor for the channeling of ever more federal resources toward the border region, which has benefited over the past ten years from an injection of billions of dollars for new Border Patrol, ICE, and CBP facilities, the deployment of an array of Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security agents, a phalanx of new checkpoints and fortified POEs, and wasteful real and virtual fences.
Rather than cheering on the border security bandwagon, the El Paso Times would do better for the border community to put its reporters and editors to work on researching and analyzing the failures of the border security framework and drug prohibition.
The Border Trade Alliance, the main business booster of the Reyes and Cornyn bills, opportunistically situates its own lobbying with the border security buildup.  It supports, for example, “increasing the number of frontline [ital. added] inspectors” so that Customs and Border Protection “can devote the manpower necessary to interdict those individuals who would seek to do us harm.” It is just this kind of alarmist threat assessment of the border – as a frontline against terrorists – that has created the problems that BTA and Reyes say should be addressed by yet more border security spending.
The border is not a frontline against terrorism but rather a Maginot Line against drugs and immigrants.  Those supporting the PORTS bill like the BTA and El Paso Times should be using their expertise as borderland experts to call into question the misdirected border security buildup.
Among the seven policy recommendations of the new CIP International Policy Report, “Policy on the Edge: Failures of Border Security and New Directions in Border Control,” is the following one calling for a recalibration of border control and border trade:
Rather than primarily being driven by political and pork-barrel imperatives, border policy should better reflect the identity of the border as both a barrier and a nexus.
Over the past decade the U.S. government has focused more on hindering crossborder traffic with Mexico than on facilitating the legal crossing of people and goods. On balance, border crossings have been considered more as a threat than as a fundamental benefit to both nations. Most of this attention has been focused on northbound traffic. However, since 2009, the U.S. government has been increasingly monitoring, and thereby slowing, southbound traffic to detect flows of weapons and illegally generated cash.
U.S.-Mexico trade constitutes a palpable national interest—nearly $400 billion annually (with U.S. exports of $229 billion in 2010 much larger than $163 billion imports from Mexico). About 80 percent of this trade is carried by railcars and truck across land ports of entry (POE).
However, the importance of binational trade and society doesn’t imply that we should be spending billions of dollars more on further upgrading our ports of entry and increasing personnel, as many border politicians insist. Border politicians led by U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), for example, introduced a bill in 2010 that would provide $5 billion in emergency funding to hire 5,000 new CBP agents to staff the POEs and to upgrade the POE infrastructure, contending that border trade needs have been neglected.
Too much funding in the past ten years has been directed to the border—not only security funding but also funding for new and overhauled POEs as well as a steady expansion of CBP agents assigned to the POEs. There is no question that maddeningly slow border crossings adversely affect binational economic relations.
Yet the main problem at the POEs is not staffing or infrastructure inadequacies. It is the intense scrutiny of all border crossers in the name of border security. In the wake of 9/11, rigorous inspection practices stemmed from homeland security concerns about foreign terrorists. Over time the border security justification for stepped-up inspections at POEs and checkpoints has expanded from counterterrorism to supporting Mexico’s drug war. In practice, though, the inspections are wildly disconnected from actual security threats and mostly net the products of flawed U.S. policies that foster illegal crossings, including gun rights policies that allow sales of military-grade weapons and drug policies that foster illegal crossborder flows.
The congestion at the border would greatly ease if the federal government first addressed drug reform, immigration reform and gun control.

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